Hard-Core, Hardheaded, Hateful Partisans Are Crowding Out Our Politics

The “growing minority” of strict liberals and conservatives is overwhelming the sensible center.

National Journal
June 12, 2014, 7:15 a.m.

The sens­ible ma­jor­ity is shrink­ing. Ac­cord­ing to an im­port­ant new study by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, a “grow­ing minor­ity” of par­tis­an Amer­ic­ans doesn’t be­lieve in com­prom­ise, and sus­pects the op­pos­ing party is a threat to the na­tion’s well-be­ing.

The find­ings beg the chick­en-or-the-egg ques­tion. Is an in­creas­ingly po­lar­ized elect­or­ate driv­ing polit­ic­al lead­ers to the ex­tremes? Or is poor lead­er­ship and hy­per­bol­ic rhet­or­ic driv­ing voters to ideo­lo­gic­al corners? The an­swer is most likely “both,” with a wide vari­ety of com­plic­at­ing factors — spe­cific­ally, the so­cial anxi­ety that ac­com­pan­ies eras of eco­nom­ic and tech­no­lo­gic­al dis­rup­tion. Key find­ings:

Hard-core par­tis­ans are on the rise. The per­cent­age of Amer­ic­ans who ex­press con­sist­ently con­ser­vat­ive and con­sist­ently lib­er­al opin­ions has doubled over the past two dec­ades, from 10 per­cent to 21 per­cent. Al­most four-in-10 polit­ic­ally en­gaged Demo­crats are con­sist­ent lib­er­als, up from just 8 per­cent in 1994. A third of Re­pub­lic­ans are con­sist­ently con­ser­vat­ive, up from just 10 per­cent a dec­ade ago.

They’re also pulling apart. Ideo­lo­gic­al over­lap between the two parties has shrunk. Ninety-two per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans are to the right of the me­di­an Demo­crat, and 94 per­cent of Demo­crats are to the left of the me­di­an Re­pub­lic­an. Two dec­ades ago, just 64 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans were to the right of the me­di­an Demo­crat and only 70 per­cent of Demo­crats were to the left of the me­di­an Re­pub­lic­an.

And they hate each oth­er. The per­cent­age of Re­pub­lic­ans who hold a highly neg­at­ive view of Demo­crats is 43 per­cent, up from 17 per­cent in 1994. Nearly four-in-10 Demo­crats loathe Re­pub­lic­ans, up from 16 per­cent two dec­ades ago.

Many con­sider the oth­er side to be an ex­ist­en­tial threat. More than one-third of Re­pub­lic­ans see the Demo­crat­ic Party as a threat to the na­tion’s well-be­ing, while 27 per­cent of Demo­crats think the same of the GOP.

They run in packs. People with hard-line ideo­lo­gic­al po­s­i­tions are more likely than oth­ers to say that most of their close friends share their view. Pew says par­tis­ans are es­sen­tially liv­ing in “ideo­lo­gic­al silos.”

And they don’t com­prom­ise. A ma­jor­ity of con­sist­ent con­ser­vat­ives (57 per­cent) say the ideal agree­ment between Obama and GOP law­makers is one in which Re­pub­lic­ans hold out for more of their goals. Con­sist­ent lib­er­als are just as stub­born, if not more so: Their pre­ferred terms (favored by 62 per­cent) end up closer to Obama’s po­s­i­tion than the GOP. “At a time of in­creas­ing grid­lock on Cap­it­ol Hill, many on both the left and the right think the out­come of polit­ic­al ne­go­ti­ations between (Pres­id­ent) Obama and Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers should be that their side gets more of what it wants,” reads the re­port.

They’re crowding out the rest of us. The hardened par­tis­an views don’t re­flect the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans, ac­cord­ing to Pew.

These sen­ti­ments are not shared by all — or even most — Amer­ic­ans. The ma­jor­ity do not have uni­formly con­ser­vat­ive or lib­er­al views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the na­tion. And more be­lieve their rep­res­ent­at­ives in gov­ern­ment should meet halfway to re­solve con­ten­tious dis­putes rather than hold out for more of what they want.

Yet many of those in the cen­ter re­main on the edges of the polit­ic­al play­ing field, re­l­at­ively dis­tant and dis­en­gaged, while the most ideo­lo­gic­ally ori­ented and polit­ic­ally rancor­ous Amer­ic­ans make their voices heard through great­er par­ti­cip­a­tion in every stage of the polit­ic­al pro­cess.

And the middle is shrink­ing. Rat­ing polit­ic­al val­ues on a scale of 1 to 10, Pew found that since 1994 the num­ber of people in the cen­ter has shrunk from 49 per­cent of the pub­lic (in 1994 and 2004) to just 39 per­cent today. That num­ber in­cludes roughly equal num­bers of lib­er­al and con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions.

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